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Wireless Lobby Sues Utah Over 36¢ Surcharge Companies Can’t Easily Pass On to Customers

The wireless industry’s largest lobbying group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, filed suit in a Utah federal court Wednesday to stop the state from imposing a 36 cent surcharge wireless carriers like AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon Wireless cannot easily pass on to their customers.

The new fee, retroactively charged from the beginning of 2018, applies to all telephone lines other than prepaid wireless phones, and represents the chief funding mechanism for Utah’s Universal Public Telecommunications Service Support Fund, which supports providing service in high cost rural areas of Utah and the expenses attributed to Utah’s participation in the federal Telephone Lifeline program, which provides subsidized telephone service to the poor.

The CTIA is upset because its member companies will have to assess the surcharge on almost every customer with a landline or wireless postpaid phone in the state, including customers getting free wireless service through the federal Lifeline program. The CTIA argues that puts an unfair burden on companies, especially those asked to either eat the cost of the surcharge or attempt to collect 36¢ a month from Lifeline customers that currently do not receive bills from their providers.

The lobbying group called its options “a Hobson’s choice” between two bad ideas. Because wireless carriers don’t want to absorb the surcharge and pay for it out of current revenue, the alternatives are to either pass along the cost to customers or raise rates. CTIA’s complaint predominately focuses on what it calls the “absurd real world results” of wireless companies struggling to get paid back the 36¢ monthly surcharge:

Participants in these [Lifeline] programs are frequently members of “unbanked” communities, and even a monthly rate of $0.36 may prove an insurmountable obstacle to participation in the Lifeline program. Those without bank accounts or a credit card have no effective means to remit a surcharge of $0.36. If they choose to mail cash, they would have to spend more on postage than on the surcharge itself. Or they may need to purchase a money order, if such are available in increments of $0.36, and pay both the charges applicable to obtaining a money order and the cost of postage – all well in excess of the $0.36 due under the PSC Rule.

[…] The PSC Rule has a chilling effect on the introduction of service offers in the market today. Carriers that have an interest in introducing innovative service plans that have or are likely to have intrastate revenues near, at, or below $0.36 will have to determine whether to select a collection method illegally imposed on them under the PSC Rule or to not offer such service plans at all.

[…] Further, requiring the underlying wireless carrier to pay the required $0.36 per month UUSF surcharge in such third-party retail prepaid situations would not cure this discrimination, as the wireless carrier generally has no billing relationship with the end-user customer, and therefore no ability to pass the charge through to the end-user customer. Requiring wireless carriers to remit the UUSF surcharge in those situations, notwithstanding their inability to pass the surcharge through to the end-user customer, is equally discriminatory vis-à-vis service providers who can pass through the UUSF surcharge to customers.

The CTIA doesn’t dwell on the real world impact of its member companies, with revenues well into the billions of dollars, simply absorbing the 36¢ a month charged to their Utah customers as a cost of doing business. Instead, the lawsuit argues Utah cannot apply USF surcharges in a way that is “inconsistent with the requirements related to the federal universal service Lifeline program.”

CTIA argues the surcharge, when applied to Lifeline customers, unfairly increases rates for the most-needy. But the lobbying group was equally concerned the charges would not apply to competing prepaid wireless providers, because the Utah Public Service Commission lacks statutory authority to impose surcharges on those providers. The CTIA argues the surcharge is discriminatory and not competitively neutral, because the it allows third-party retailers of prepaid wireless telecommunications services like Tracfone to avoid the surcharge.

The CTIA is seeking a permanent injunction to stop the surcharges and has asked the court to order the defendants — essentially Utah’s taxpayers — to pay its court costs.

New Verizon FiOS Gigabit Customers Get Xbox Live Gold and Free Online Game

Phillip Dampier April 11, 2018 Broadband Speed, Consumer News, Verizon No Comments

To promote its gigabit speed offering, Verizon Communications has introduced a new offer targeting online gamers that offers a free, one-year subscription to Xbox Live Gold and a choice of Sea of Thieves or Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds for free when signing up for Verizon FiOS Gigabit Connection (940/880 Mbps) service at a special promotional price of $79.99 for one year.

Extremely high-speed internet service is often not as important for online gamers as latency, but Verizon is clearly targeting game-loving millennials with this standalone internet-only offer. It is also avoiding some of the usual hurdles that can drive some away, especially by waiving the budget-straining $99.99 setup fee. But some of Verizon’s usual fine print and gotchas still apply:

  • Offer valid for new residential internet customers only.
  • Customers must sign up for this promotion online.
  • Customers are billed at the non-promotional, regular price and receive bill credits on their bill to cut the cost to $79.99. After one year, those bill credits end and you pay the regular price.
  • A $10/mo router charge applies, along with unspecified “other fees, taxes, and equipment charges.”
  • Customers must agree to paperless billing and autopay with a ACH debit to a checking account or bank debit card only.
  • Credit approval is required. Those who don’t pass muster may require a refundable deposit.

Other important terms:

  • Must maintain your Verizon FiOS Gigabit Connection service for at least 60 days after installation, with no past-due balance, or promotion will be canceled.
  • You must redeem your Xbox Live and chosen game codes within 90 days of delivery or they may expire and will not be replaced.
  • The offer is valid from April 5 to May 4, 2018.

Once your service is installed, you will need to wait for your first Verizon bill. Within 24 hours after Verizon receives full payment of your first FiOS bill, you will receive an e-mail with a code for a one-year membership to Xbox Live Gold and a second code for a digital download of the game you chose during your order. This email will include a link to the Microsoft Live website where you can follow the required steps to activate your membership and download your game.

If you already have an Xbox Live Gold membership, the supplied code will extend your current membership by an additional 12 months. It must be redeemed by December 31, 2018. If you already own the game you chose during your FiOS order, you will not be able to redeem the game code through your Xbox Live account or exchange it for an equivalent cash value. However, you can gift  the code to a friend or family member. But be sure to have them activate it within 90 days.

AT&T and Crown Castle Sign New Agreement Permitting 5G Cells on Existing Infrastructure

Phillip Dampier April 11, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Wireless Broadband No Comments

AT&T and Crown Castle, which owns many of the cell towers that AT&T and other wireless carriers use, have signed a new agreement allowing AT&T to lease space on existing Crown Castle towers to deploy 5G wireless infrastructure.

The key to the new agreement is streamlining the process of contracting for long-term space for small cells and other infrastructure that will be critical for 5G wireless deployments. AT&T also wants to more rapidly execute contracts to deploy wireless network upgrades to fulfill its obligations for FirstNet, the first responders emergency communications network.

“This agreement marks a significant milestone in our relationship with Crown Castle,” said Susan Johnson, executive vice president of global connections and supply chain. “It establishes a market-based framework and simplifies the lease management and administration process. This will allow us to streamline network projects to better serve our customers.”

The new agreement also covers traditional cell tower infrastructure for 4G LTE services. It will include provisions for long-term leasing, which will give AT&T additional stability in planning and service.

 

Crown Castle owns, operates and leases more than 40,000 cell towers and approximately 60,000 route miles of fiber supporting small cells and fiber solutions across every major U.S. market.

ESPN+ Launches Thursday; Amex Cardholders Get 30-Day Free Trial

Phillip Dampier April 11, 2018 Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

American Express cardholders will get 30 days of free service from ESPN+, ESPN’s new streaming video service, when it launches this Thursday, after the credit card company announced it would be the official launch sponsor.

Cardholders will have to enroll in the service during launch week to qualify for the 30-day trial, which can be canceled with no obligation. Those without Amex cards will likely get a 7-day free trial before the monthly $4.99 fee begins.

“It is fitting to have a renowned brand like American Express on board as the official launch sponsor for a renowned moment in our company’s history,” Ed Erhardt, president of ESPN global sales and marketing said in a statement. “Disney and ESPN continue to lead the industry in delivering innovative ad experiences and solutions for advertisers, and with ESPN+, we now have more opportunities to reach fans in new and engaging ways.”

Some sports fans are skeptical about the merits of ESPN+, which is designed to protect ESPN’s cable television partners. The Ringer reports a deeper look at the lineup reveals ESPN+ is likely to be underwhelming. Although the service may prove valuable to less-followed soccer, boxing, golf, tennis, rugby and cricket sports fans, devoted baseball and hockey fans are likely to be frustrated by slim offerings.

“It’s lacking the main thing sports fans want to watch: sports.”

“[It’s] programming not valuable enough to appear on one of ESPN’s eight cable networks (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, ESPNews, ESPN Deportes, Longhorn Network, SEC Network),” opines The Ringer. “ESPN’s press release makes no mention of the NFL or NBA at all. There will be no Monday Night Football, and neither of ESPN’s two weekly NBA games will appear on the platform. Plus, no live event that is on one of ESPN’s eight cable networks will be on ESPN+.”

ESPN+ will be available on a redesigned ESPN app and through ESPN.com.

Frontier Employees Gripe About Deteriorating Conditions, Disappointed Customers

A growing number of Frontier Communications employees are sharing their dissatisfaction working at a phone company that continues its decline with nearly $2 billion in losses and more than a half-million customers departing in 2017.

Workers describe a deteriorating workplace with increasingly hostile and disappointed customers that want to take their business elsewhere, and employees that are increasingly frustrated and predict the company is headed towards bankruptcy.

“This is a company in a long-term decline, which is good and bad for workers and customers,” said ‘Geoff,’ a Frontier employee in California who wished to remain anonymous for obvious reasons. “It’s good because you know there is still some time left in case of a miraculous turnaround, but bad because like a glider slowly descending toward the ground, it is inevitably going to land or crash at some point in the not-too-distant future.”

Geoff was formerly employed by Verizon Communications before Frontier completed an acquisition of Verizon’s landline, fiber, and wireline networks in California in 2016. Now he’s employed full-time as a network engineer for Frontier.

“The trouble started almost immediately, because Verizon’s methodical, if not bureaucratic way of doing business was replaced with Frontier’s never ending chaos,” Geoff told Stop the Cap! “We were warned by techs in Connecticut, Indiana and West Virginia that Frontier’s management was very uneven, changes direction on various executive whims, and is very disconnected from mainline workers, and boy were they right.”

Geoff and his team, responsible for managing Verizon’s FiOS fiber network in Southern California, were split up after Frontier took over and put under severe budget restraints, which have grown tighter and tighter as Frontier’s economic condition deteriorates.

“Under good leadership, cost cutting can be an effective way to deal with wasteful, creeping spending that sometimes happens at large companies when budgets still reflect the priorities of several years ago, but Frontier just wants costs cut willy-nilly, including investments that actually save the company a lot of money, time, and frustration,” said Geoff. “Those cuts are also responsible for the deteriorating infrastructure and increasing failures customers are experiencing.”

“As a network engineer, I can see each day what Frontier’s network looks like and I talk to many other engineers at this company who are seeing much the same thing in their areas,” Geoff said. “If you live in an area where Verizon upgraded its network to fiber before selling it to Frontier, you will probably experience the least number of service problems, although the company’s billing systems are still troublesome. If you live in what Frontier calls its legacy (copper) markets, it’s a real mess and things are not getting better near fast enough, and customers are going elsewhere.”

Geoff’s views are shared by a growing number of hostile employee reviews being left on websites like Glassdoor. When cumulatively examined, those reviews show common points of complaint:

  • Customers are treated to aggressive sales tactics, offered products and services they cannot use, while rushed off the phone when reporting service problems.
  • Management is out of touch with employees and issue directives for new policies and services that cannot be easily managed from antiquated software and systems still in use at the company.
  • Because company is performing poorly, managers can be very protective of their employee teams and attempt to keep them independent and insulated from management chaos. New employees perceive this as ‘cliquish’ and they often do not do well when assigned to one of those teams, as they are viewed with suspicion.
  • Major cuts in training budgets have left employees with inadequate knowledge of Frontier’s own systems. In sales, this results in customers being sold plans they cannot actually get in their areas, incomplete orders, misrepresentation of pricing and product information, and customer trouble tickets being accidentally erased or left incomplete. Constant process changes are expected to be implemented by employees not trained to implement or manage them.
  • No significant upgrades are coming, but employees are trained to tell customers to be patient for better service that is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Many employees share the view, “we’re all in the same boat, except that boat is sinking.”

The Better Business Bureau offers this advisory about Frontier Communications, which received a grade of “F” from the consumer organization.

“Sally,” who works at a Frontier internet support call center, tells Stop the Cap! she has noticed customers are getting increasingly hostile towards the company.

“The frustration level is enormous for customers and those of us tasked to help them,” Sally said. “Frontier markets itself as a solutions company and we sell a lot of ‘Peace of Mind’ support services for technology products, including our own, but sometimes the only answer to a problem has to come from the company investing in its facilities and not making excuses for why things are not working.”

Sally explains many Frontier customers do not have much experience troubleshooting technology problems.

“Most of my calls come from our rural customers who don’t have a choice in internet providers or are from lower and fixed income customers that cannot afford the cable company’s prices for internet access,” Sally said. “They know what they want to do with their internet connections but call us when they can’t seem to do it, whether that is sending email or watching video or using an internet video calling application to see their grandkids. You can only imagine what they feel when we tell them their DSL connection is unstable or their speed is too slow to support the application they want to use. We end up disappointing a lot of people because the internet and technology is moving much faster than Frontier is and our network just cannot keep up.”

Sally has been on the receiving end of profanity and a lot of slammed down phones, but there is little she can do.

“We can send a repair crew out but considering some of our lines are decades old, there isn’t much they can do about it,” Sally said. “This is a problem only management can solve and they’ve been distracted trying to deal with shareholders, acquisitions, and if you don’t mind me saying, being very preoccupied with their performance bonuses. We always know when another bad quarter is coming because of last-minute directives from top management designed to really push sales and hold on to customers to limit the damage. That is also around the time they start taking perks away from us in various cost-cutting plans. My co-workers are starting to leave because they don’t feel valued and do not want to work for a company in a long-term decline.”

“It seems like Frontier has just given up trying to compete with cable companies for internet services and now just sells internet to rural customers it can reach with the help of government subsidies,” adds Geoff. “It’s easy to do business with customers who don’t have any other choice for internet access.”

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